If it seemed incredulous that Mark Knopfler’s concert Friday night at ACL Live sold out well in advance, even with ticket prices starting at $89, understand that his fans had been waiting a long time for this.
Knopfler hadn’t played Austin since a 1985 City Coliseum date with his former band, Dire Straits (whose only other Austin appearance was a 1980 performance that was one of the last shows at Armadillo World Headquarters). It’s also worth noting that the album Dire Straits was touring behind in ’85, “Brothers in Arms,” eventually sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, which put them in rarefied rock-star stratosphere, at least for a while.
Knopfler’s solo career has has been more modest by comparison, spanning eight records since 1996 with only 2000’s “Sailing to Philadelphia” being a big seller. But it was clear from the hero’s welcome he and his seven-piece band received from the ACL Live crowd that plenty of his early fans have continued to follow and appreciate his music.
They paid top-dollar because Knopfler possesses a sophistication as both a songwriter and an instrumentalist that’s increasingly rare in contemporary popular music. A master of guitar tone — noted Austin guitarist Jesse Dayton, in attendance, hashtagged a social-media post #tonegod — Knopfler blends elements of rock, jazz, Celtic folk, blues and more into a signature sound that draws heavily on the versatility of his bandmates.
He underscored this reliance with a refreshingly extended roll call as the show hit its final stretch leading into “Postcards From Paraguay,” from 2004’s “Shangri-La.” Piece by piece, the song built up as Knopfler introduced them: first drummer Andrew Thomas, then guitar/ukulele ringer Richard Bennett, then longtime keyboardist/guitarist Guy Fletcher (the only Dire Straits holdover), then pianist Jim Cox and bassist Glenn Worf, and finally multi-instrumentalists John McCusker and Mike McGoldrick.
Saxophonist Nigel Hitchcock also joined them for a few key songs, notably the “Brothers in Arms” track “Your Latest Trick,” which kicked off a midset triptych of Dire Straits “historical artifacts,” as Knopfler teasingly referred to them. The oft-covered “Romeo & Juliet” was perhaps too low-key in its presentation, but the pace kicked up a notch when Knopfler pared the arrangment down to just a core of guitarist Bennett and the Worf/Thomas rhythm section for “Sultans of Swing,” which drew a standing ovation.
In addition to working in a couple of songs from his new album “Tracker,” Knopfler also pulled from his soundtrack work with “Father and Son” from the 1984 Irish Drama “Cal” and, most rewardingly, the theme song from the brilliant 1983 movie “Local Hero,” Knopfler’s first foray into making music for films. It almost didn’t get played. After concluding the main set with the epic “Telegraph Road” from Dire Straits’ “Love Over Gold” album, Knopfler brought the band back out for the “Brothers in Arms” hit “So Far Away” — pointedly avoiding that album’s MTV smash “Money for Nothing.”
He and the band then gathered the lip of the stage for what seemed like a parting bow and wave. But the crowd wouldn’t let them go without one more, roaring and cheering for several minutes until Knopfler finally obliged. No vocals were needed for the radiant “Local Hero” instrumental, as the master of tone presided over a symphony of sound that floated gloriously through the hall, still lingering as the crowd spilled out into the night on the streets of downtown Austin.
(Correction: This review was updated to reflect that Dire Straits’ 1985 Austin concert was held at City Coliseum.)